Sunday, May 18, 2003

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I mentioned Julian Jaynes last post. He was a Yale psychology professor who published this book in 1986. I bought a copy 8-9 years ago, got around to reading it 3-4 years ago. It is an incredibly fun book.

The basic premise is that, prior to around 1300 BC, the human mind worked radically differently than what it does now. The mind was bicameral (we had two minds). The left brain could execute simple programs (plant the crops, harvest, etc), reinforced by a view of a central tower or pyramid. When the left brain stressed out, the right brain woke up and chanted instructions in the Voice of God. The god-priest-king who spoke from central tower helped set the directions with his right brain pronunciations. So, god actually did talk to people, from their right hemispheres. But, as cities got larger (you couldn't see the central tower) and society got more complex, this model broke down, and consciousness as we know it evolved to take its place.

From references to this in Dennett and other cognitive scientists, I think that pretty much nobody working in the field buys into this. But, everyone seems a bit awed by the concept, and I think that psychoarcheology is recognized as a legitimate endeavor, largely invented by Jaynes. It is highly doubtful that our consciousness as is sprang into being all at once. There are clearly levels of intelligence. We have a dog. I am not a dog person, but our dog has really impressed me with the level of intelligence of dogs. He clearly forms and executes plans, i.e., displays intentional behavior. He knows when he has been bad, exhibits remorse, lots of other things. I am sure I am preaching to the choir of dog-lovers.

A more detailed review of TOOCITBOTBM. I would refer to the book, but I am currently without a copy. I believe I have bought three. This is clearly a meme that I have been compelled to spread.

The book starts with asking what consciousness is. First, lots of things it is not: problem-solving and many other activities considered "conscious" are examined and found to actually be mostly unconscious. One of the main things the conscious mind is good at is taking credit for things it does not do, reinforcing its importance (to be examined in more detail in a later post on "The User Illusion" and "The Meme Machine"). Jaynes says consiousness has two main components: short term memory (the focus of attention), and the narrative I (each of us is constantly telling ourself "the story of me").

He then has a fairly incomprehensible chapter on metaphrors and metaphrands (don't worry, skim or skip it), followed by an in depth examination of the concept of self in "The Iliad", down to the Greek nouns used. His contention is that no one in The Iliad ever really has an idea. Zeus says do it, they do it. Aphrodite says do it, they do it. I reread about 1/3 of The Iliad looking for this (the Lattimore translation, I still read a bit occasionally) and didn't feel like I particularly saw it -- except for one scene where Paris is getting his butt kicked by Meneleaus and is suddenly transported to his chambers inside the city by Aphrodite (i.e., his right brain woke up and, in the voice of Aphrodite, told him to run like hell.)

He then recounts how, when the bicameral mind started to breakdown, there were many religous writings asking "Why won't god talk to us anymore?" As they tried to find replacements for the voice of god, they tried lots of odd stuff. He talks about a Sumerian? book of omens, with 20,000 rules of behavior ("if a scorpion comes out from under your house, your mother-in-law will die.") -- pretty cool, they were trying to use rule-based expert systems (a brittle AI tool popular in the mid-80s).

The archtypal example of the new, conscious human mind is the hero of "The Odyssey", Odysseus or Ulysses, who has always been a favorite of mine. He is an archytypal trickster -- he is wonderful at deception and lying. And, as one of the features of the bicameral mind was YOU COULD NOT LIE, he was at a huge advantage.

Once the theory is presented, Jaynes then has a great time reinterpreting all of human history in its light. This is really great fun. Among the high points:

  • A history of oracularism (e.g., the Delphic Oracle). The oracles were normally recruited from shepherds or other isolated people, where you could occasionally find someone still running the old software. Originally, they spoke in the voice of god, then they required interpretation by priests, finally, around the 4th century AD, they quit working altogether.
  • A discussion of the casting of lots (rolling dice). There was no probability theory until the 17th century -- people thought god determined the outcome of dice throws.
  • A history of hypnotism. Invented by Mesmer in 1870(?), it is a totally plastic phenomenom. Originally you rolled around on the floor and twitched when hypnotized. That being too undignified, it was dropped after around 30 years. The deal with not being able to remember what happens while you are in a trance was only added 30 or so years ago. And, the more religious you are, the more easily you are hypnotized. Jaynes says that is well known that the best subjects for studies on hypnotism come from seminaries.
  • How did 100 Spaniards conquer the millions of Incas and Aztecs? Jayne posits that the Incas and Aztecs were still running the old software, so, when they asked the Spaniards if they were gods and the Spaniards said yes, they believed them.
So, I thought of this after my "almost religious" experience because, when 'Something Is" started rolling around in my head, it was clearly dominantly in the left internal aural field -- i.e., being generated by my right brain. Oops, Jaynes says the only time you run into the old software currently is in schizophrenics. Well, at least I'm sane (or as sane as the next guy) most of the time ;->

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